By Leigh Wallace
With How I Shed My Skin, acclaimed writer Jim Grimsley (Winter Birds, Dream Boy) details the process by which he began to deal with his racism. He also examines how being both gay and a hemophiliac intersect with this process. It all starts with the desegregation of his school.
“You are a black bitch” was his greeting to his first-ever African-American schoolmate. Her response—the fact that she even responded—left him wondering, “If I was superior to her, as I had always been told I was, why didn’t she feel it too?”
This was the first step in unlearning the demonization of black people that starts with our everyday language—“A bride married in a white dress. A widow draped herself in black from head to toe. Black as death, we say. Black as night, black as coal, black as sin. Black is an abyss into which we fear to fall.”
Our training to perpetuate these notions of good and bad begins in the crib, in our earliest moments. “I was taught to believe in white superiority in small ways, by gentle people who believed themselves to be telling God’s own truth.” Grimsley needed to reconcile this cultural and social framework with his sudden discovery that his classmate was a person who, in this instance, used her words to best him.
So began his journey.
This internal travelogue is both simple and complicated. Grimsley starts at “I would have stopped integration myself…” Soon, due to desegregation, he finds himself in the minority at his school, forcing his thinking to move away from an unconscious “this is how things have always been and there is no problem” mindset to something entirely foreign to him.
Grimsley’s integrated school and education, with white children as a minority, resulted in his getting to know black children in a natural, simple way. Being in the same space and working together for a common goal, even something as small as a shared school assignment, he began to unlearn his racism just as he had learned it—in small slivers.
This knowledge, along with his gathering feeling of being “the other,” both in response to his hemophilia and his dawning awareness that he was gay, came to a head one day during homeroom. A group of white boys was performing their hatred for the rest of the class. “You see your people, don’t you?” she asked. He said, “Those are not my people.” These simple words indicated a leap from everything he had been taught—everything his community secretly agreed on—to the place of thinking for himself, and making a choice.
This is Grimsley’s defining moment, when he sees the choice to turn away from institutionalized hatred and move toward working to understand and know people on an individual basis. The rest of Grimsley’s story is informed by his need to continually choose, the understanding that we never entirely eradicate our own racism, and the desire to simply be a better person.
This story is searingly honest and compelling—simply one of the best personal memoirs I have ever read. Please do yourself the favor of sitting at the elbow of one of America’s finest writers as he tells the truth of his own tale.
This is Leigh Wallace’s first contribution to OutSmart.